Recently I had the opportunity to play GERARDO ESCOBAR in Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden at the Firehall Theatre in Niagara Falls. All in all, our run of Dorfman’s beautifully written but exceptionally dark play was a success. But weeks after the end of our run, I still find myself thinking about the play, especially my role in it.
This preoccupation led me to think about the importance of, and relative lack of discussion about, winding down after playing an emotionally charged role. So, I thought it would be a good idea to mention some of the techniques I use to help me drop parts.
Ordinary vs. Non-Ordinary Reality
The processes actors use to engage emotionally and physically with roles are both subjective and key to capturing the emotional integrity of any given role. And although the preparation process is important, the perceived importance of preparation seems to outweigh the importance of winding down after completing a production.
Many actors end up taking their work home with them whether they mean to or not so it’s important for actors of every stripe to work on routines that allow us to differentiate our lives between the ordinary reality of the everyday and the non-ordinary reality of the play.
When unwinding with friends after a show, especially if they were in the show with me or watching it as an audience member, I find that it’s helpful to discuss the most recent production. This might seem counter-intuitive but discussing the most recent production provides a necessary bridge between play and everyday life. It’s important, of course, that this discussion doesn’t last all night.
The Post-Show Drink(s)
A couple drinks after a show can help but it’s important to keep your vices in check. Having a couple of drinks can be relatively benign but if an actor is involved in an extended run, the toll on one’s pocketbook, liver, and mind gets to be too much. Instead, it’s better to develop a personal regimen of psychological cool-down techniques that actors can call upon to decompress naturally.
Trips to and from shows—whether on public transit, in one’s motor vehicle, or on walks to and/or from the theatre—offer built-in chances for actors to walk it off. No matter the show, its plot probably didn’t involve commuting, at least not in the ordinary way one finds oneself commuting in everyday life.
Rehearsal often takes place, in part at least, at home but performances only happen onstage at the theatre. So by associating characters, along with the emotional and physical characteristics that come with portraying them, with the set, actors can use performance spaces to drop into and start dropping out of characters’ head-spaces.
In addition to physical distance from the performance space, actors can build in physical distance from their roles. This method of cooling down involves a bit of preparation but it’s preparation that pays off.
When initially building the physicalizations of a role, it helps to build in a few elements specific to that character. Although these physicalizations might be based on something the actor does in ordinary reality, say a nervous habit of scratching their head, the actor modifies this nervous habit into a physicalization tailor-made for their character. So even though actor and character habitually scratch their heads, they do so in fundamentally different ways.
By employing one’s own modified personal physicalizations in the way I’ve described, an actor can create convincing stage business while also maintaining a healthy physical and emotional distance from a role. Whether these modified personal physicalizations are exaggerated or involve some other variation, such as using the opposite hand one usually would to brush hair out of one’s face, these built-in variations allow for smoother cooling-down periods after performances.
Coffee or Maybe a Big Meal
Although one should avoid having lots of big meals for some of the same reasons one should avoid drinking to excess, having a good meal or even drinking a coffee or tea can help actors cool down. Just like commuting, it’s uncommon to eat or drink onstage. And since it’s particularly unlikely to have to prepare and drink coffee onstage, unless the play is exceptionally naturalistic, performing an everyday ritual like making and drinking a coffee help bring the actor back to ordinary reality.
Never Suppress a Good Inside Joke
Again, it may seem counter-intuitive but sharing inside jokes about a past production with people who can laugh along provides actors with a sense of closure. These inside jokes might seem like unwanted reminders of difficult roles but, in my experience at least, these jokes call attention to the fact that the non-ordinary reality of a past production was just that, non-ordinary.
Quoting favourite lines or sharing a laugh about a backstage snafu highlight for actors the fact that the play was just a play, and not some offshoot of their everyday lives.
We’re Not (That) Crazy…
Taking on roles affects different people in different ways. Some actors can drop in and out of roles as if they’re changing hats. Others make spiritual connections with characters, forever changed after taking on almost any role.
Of course, in most cases at least, actors don’t sit around wondering if everyday life is actually a play or vice versa. Instead, these or similar routines help actors keep character work from interfering in everyday life. By distancing oneself physically from a character, an actor builds in psychological barriers that help preserve emotional distance. Emotional distance helps actors avoid inadvertently triggering memories of emotionally draining or disturbing character work, i.e. memories of non-ordinary reality, when living their everyday lives, i.e. ordinary reality.